Punjabi is the mother tongue of 90-100 million people; out of this, Pakistan claims 63 million, and India 29. The rest of us are sprinkled around the world where Canada is the Fourth largest host with UK being the Third. In these four countries, Punjabi is deemed ‘the most commonly spoken’ language in Pakistan, ‘the 11th most commonly spoken’ language in India, ‘the 2nd most common’ spoken language in the UK, and ‘the 4th most common’ spoken language in Canada.
Yet a UNESCO report lists it as endangered to disappear in the next few decades. And, even when we can not find the report, it is apparent that the extinction may well happen if we do not take notice of the situation faced by Punjabi Maanboli at all our present locations.
Even though Punjabi MaaNboli has suffered in India from Hindi and English as it has in Pakistan from Urdu and English, its effects are not as devastating. There are many reasons for this but the most intriguing is the one that has to do with the situation in which influential Punjabis found themselves at the time of Partition.
‘Influential Punjabis’ is a flexible, rather ‘loose’, term for the decision-makers of the Punjab at different times in our history; and, it allows for diverse social formations for all three of our contexts: India, Pakistan, and the Diaspora.
The Influential Punjabis
Language as identity emerged as an important issue for Punjabis in both India and Pakistan but the positions were as distant as the two proverbial banks of River Chenab.
Where In 1947, language became one of the strongest symbols of the survival of Sikh identity for Sikh Punjabis in India, for influential Muslim Punjabis the mother language was one of the many hindrances to the implementation of the ‘ideology of Pakistan’. The status of Sikh Punjabis as an insecure minority in Hindu-dominated India was reaffirmed as bloodshed ensued among Muslims and Sikhs across new borders. On the other hand, Muslim influential Punjabis ‘owned’, so to speak, the new state of Pakistan; and, continue to be the major stake holders in the country. In that still-born concept, the growth of a ‘Muslim’ identity was deemed crucial to the survival of the new state; and so, Urdu and English were awarded the status of national languages to rule and ‘unify’ the people who were rooted in five distinct cultural, linguist and geographic locations in a far-apart ‘nation’.
Most Punjabis reside in the Pakistani province of the Punjab where it is the mother language of 44% of the population; better still, because of the privileges and influences Punjabis enjoy in the country, it is understood and spoken by 70% of the population. Yet Punjabi has no status in Pakistan. The country has two official languages, English and Urdu, although none is the mother tongue of any indigenous group in the areas included in it. Punjabi remains un-acknowledged in Pakistan; it does not enjoy the status of, for example, the third national official language or even the official language of the province of the Punjab. As a result, Punjabi is neither taught at any level of the provincial education system nor is it the language of instruction or interaction at any level of guidance or governance. This assures that the language remains bereft of jobs, resources, teachers, educationists, students, researchers, writers, publishers and readers in Pakistani Punjab where 60% of all Punjabis live.
Despite discriminatory policies and practices of the Muslim Punjabi ruling elites, a tremendous development of Punjabi language and literature continues to happen in Pakistani Punjab, and i am glad to say that it is because of the painstaking continuous work of cultural activists and intellectuals of West Punjab. With no or negligible support from successive provincial or federal governments, political parties and vested religion-based interests, Punjabi continues to be spoken, written and read by millions.
In India, although only 3% of the population is ‘native’ Punjabi speaker yet it fares way better in comparison. Here, Punjabi is recognized as one of the official languages of Chandigarh, the shared state capital; and, of the states of Delhi, Panjab and Haryana. In the state of Panjab, Punjabi acquired the status of an official language in September 2008. Now it is taught in schools, and is the language of interaction at some levels of provincial government. This has been accomplished because of the persistence of East Punjabi politicians, cultural activists and intellectuals who did not allow the government of India to disregard their language rights.
It is also true that since the Partition, much of the direction to the movements for Punjabi language development around the world has been provided by progressive writers and intellectuals from East Punjab.
Living in the third space, we continue to reflect similar patterns regarding our mother language. Out here as well, Punjabi language is nurtured by East Punjabi writers and cultural activists while West Punjabi counterparts continue to avoid any allegiance to it by choosing to write in Urdu or English. Few middle class families in Pakistan speak Punjabi at home, and this is how it is in most our families in North America. Though this is a burning issue for East Punjabi communities as well but East Punjabi community leaders have developed organizations to discuss it, spread awareness and to improve the situation. Such structures, however, are still hard to find in Pakistani Punjabi communities in the West.
In my view, the saving grace for Pakistani Punjabis has been the efforts of dedicated Punjabi intellectuals/activists such as Dr. Manzur Ejaz and Safir Rammah, who built the APNA website in Washington DC to publish Punjabi literature in both Shahmukhi and Gurumukhi. This valuable work has now branched into a bi-script quarterly literary journal, and an online Punjabi daily newspaper.
In all our physical spaces, we face similar problems with important yet marginal differences. This prompts similar solutions. An example of this is the formation of ‘chairs’ in educational institutions. From my perspective, the downside to Punjabi language development was the formation of ‘Sikh’ chairs where a large proportion of development effort went into the hands of religious interests in India and in the West. The same solution is now being implemented in Pakistan by initiating the ‘Sufi’ chairs.
It is important for the health of languages and cultures to take shape in non-restrictive creative environments, and so we must find, support and create secular spaces to develop Punjabi MaaNboli literature, languages and cultures. An interesting example of this came out last month where a folk singer was not allowed to sing Heer when requested by the audience at a music concert in a Khalsa College in India.
Numbers from Wiki
Top Ten Punjabi speaking countries
United Kingdom: 1,600,000
United Arab Emerates: 720,000
United States: 700,000
Saudi Arabia: 640,000
‘Roughly 42% of genetic markers in the Punjab were of West Asian origin, the highest amongst the sampled group of South Asians’ (1).
The areas included in West Asia now have the following countries in it: Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Cypress, Lebanon, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbiajan, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgystan, Kazakhastan.
Punjabi has 28 dialects (PU, Patiala), the following 12 are recognized by Language Department of Punjab, India.
1. Pothohari, 2. Jhangi, 3. Multani, 4. Dogri, 5. Kangri, 6. Pahari, 7. Majhi, 8. Doab, 9. Malwai,10. Powadhi,11. Bhattiani,12. Rathi
Major Religious Groups
Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Christian
Gurumukhi, Persio-Arabic/Shahmukhi, Devnagri